They weren’t particularly noble. They weren’t particularly kind. They lived; they died. They did know not to destroy the things they depended upon. They didn’t have the sense of property and ownership that my ancestors had. They did have a sense of responsibility for deeds, each for his own. They fought in conflicts often settled more by shame or embarrassment than by death. And we killed them.
It may seem a strange way to seek renewal, visiting the site of a massacre. But, by the time each weekend arrives, I’ve become tired of day-to-day in-town absurdities. I need to get away. By late winter I’ve had enough of battling the elements in traveling to the mountains. I turn east toward the plains. The map showed the site of the Sand Creek Massacre. That’s where I headed.
Pike’s Peak slowly shrank in my mirror as I drove eighty miles east on Route 94. It fascinates me how far I can see in good air. The mountain was over a hundred miles distant when a swell of high plains finally obscured it. Some time later I reached the turnoff at Kit Carson and stopped for gas.
I filled up and entered the little bare sunlit office. The attendant, a man probably in his sixties, was sitting hunched over a newspaper facing the window, a thin smile on his face. I gave him a twenty and remarked that he had a nice sunny spot. No reaction. He made my change and I started to leave. “I don’t get the sign on your topper,” he said. “Oh,” I thought.
There are several philosophical signs in the windows of my truck topper. The one on the near side, the one he must have read while I was pumping gas, says, “Wolves Weed; Men Massacre.” I answered him, “When we have problems with one thing, we tend to kill everything. Wolves kill weak things.” “Oh,” he said, and I left.
As I drove south, trying to match the roads on my map to the actual maze of dirt tracks, I mulled over this encounter. I was happy with my response. Not antagonistic, I felt. Sometimes anger overwhelms my ability to put words together. Perhaps going to Sand Creek had mellowed my attitude. It did seem linked. Without reaching my destination I’d encountered yet another aspect of our heritage of Eminent Domain.
It took a while to find the site. It’s on private land along what is now called Big Sandy Creek. There’s a small stone monument on a hill overlooking the creek bed. There is no legend on this monument. The story is told on a weathered sign along Route 96, eight miles to the south. You can see how it might have been. The stream is underground, though there are wet spots, and there may be running water in some seasons or years. The ribbon of cottonwoods indicates that digging might well succeed in locating water. Cattle and birds are the obvious inhabitants. There is a bend in the creek here. On the southwest, a substantial bank forms the outside of the bend. It may be fifty feet high near the monument.
I experienced Sand Creek. I looked down on what appeared to be a pleasant campsite, with shade, shelter, fuel and water. I sat under the trees, ate lunch, watched hawks, listened to cattle sounds and avoided their pies. Being sentimental, I even read some poetry at the marker. It was good for me to do this. It doesn’t change things. I don’t feel responsible for it, but I’m pleased I regret it. It’s as I like to think being human can mean: to be aware of what is in us, to be on guard lest it burst forth. I assure you, I don’t always succeed.
Leaving by heading south, I reached Route 96 in about fifteen minutes, just past a railroad track. I read the sign there. It was 1864. Several hundred indians, mostly Cheyenne, some Arapaho, had lodges at Sand Creek. Most of the men were away. Women, children and elders were there. They raised a flag as a sign of peace when they saw soldiers approaching. A mounted band, led by a man named Chivington, killed and mutilated over a hundred and thirty of the indians. The action was deplored and condemned by Congress. No one was punished. A mile west is a dusty old settlement along the railroad. It’s called Chivington.
I wish this weren’t my heritage, but it is. The arrogance, the cruelty, and the willingness to accept any justification to do whatever we want at the moment, all appall me. But these are characteristics of the human animal. The long-term implications are what distresses me most. The inclination and ability to live in sustainable harmony with their environment is what appeals to me most about aboriginals, be they native Americans, or Australians, or whatever. If the way we live destroys our ability to continue living that way, then we are making a mistake that may doom our children, or their children. It’s ironic because we often use them as the reason why we adopt our environmentally depleting lifestyles. On the other side of my topper, I have a sign that says, “When we are through devastating this world, do we think we’ll be given another?” I’m afraid that attitude may be the cornerstone of my culture’s legacy.